Giving Offense Essay - Critical Essays

J. M. Coetzee

Giving Offense

In some ways more a miscellany than a systematic analysis of its subject, GIVING OFFENSE is nevertheless a provocative examination of the concept and practice of censorship. In twelve separate essays, J. M. Coetzee, a South African novelist who has seen at first hand the effects of government suppression of literature, reviews the causes and consequences of official proscription. Clearly antithetical toward the practice, Coetzee provides an overview of the elements of censorship before launching into a series of investigations to explore the impact of the phenomenon on a number of writers from Western countries as well as several from behind the Iron Curtain. Wedged into the text are a stinging critique of some feminists’ attack on pornography and a highly technical, philosophical analysis of the work of Renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus. The final four chapters offer an inside look at the practice of censorship in South Africa; two essays concentrate on the work of those supporting or implementing the government’s decree, while two discuss ways prominent South African literary figures have outwitted the censors or confronted them head-on.

Coetzee concludes that censorship arises from paranoia, a belief that art has the power to corrupt and the censor is upholding a public duty by restricting the production and dissemination of potentially harmful materials. In several of the essays in this volume, he takes great care to show the flawed logic of the censor; at the same time, he acknowledges that many writers are spurred on by the veiled threat of censorship and that the practice has often given credence to works which might otherwise have been ignored.

GIVING OFFENSE is not light reading. Coetzee relies heavily on the work of twentieth century philosophers and literary theorists, and his work is peppered with allusions to writers from ancient Greece to the 1990’s. Those who take the time to follow his arguments, however, will be rewarded with insights into a phenomenon which has been both the bane and the stimulus of great writing for centuries.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCII, April 1, 1996, p. 1328.

Hungry Mind Review. XI, Summer, 1996, p. 47.

Kirkus Reviews. LXIV, February 1, 1996, p. 188.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 21, 1996, p. 2.

The New Republic. CCXV, November 18, 1996, p. 30.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, September 22, 1996, p. 32.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, May 5, 1996, p. 5.

World Literature Today. LXX, Winter, 1996, p. 107.